This victory accelerates United to within seven points of the erstwhile runaway Premiership leaders, and as they have to play at Stamford Bridge at the end of the month, the impossible pursuit has suddenly improved to the improbable. To gauge their momentum, this time last week they were 15 points adrift.
United threw down the gauntlet with their eighth successive League win on the day Chelsea were held at Birmingham, and, to make the success even sweeter for Ferguson, his selection policy was thoroughly vindicated. Louis Saha, preferred again ahead of Ruud van Nistelrooy, got his 14th goal of the season and Van Nistelrooy came off the bench to get the winner with 11 minutes remaining.
United now can at least glimpse Chelsea's coat-tails while Bolton, after successive defeats, are losing sight of the fourth place and qualification for the Champions' League.
Bolton took the lead through Kevin Davies after 26 minutes only to be overwhelmed by the pace and movement of the resurgent visitors. "It was an important win for us," a beaming Ferguson said. "We have a massive game against Arsenal next week. They are playing well, we're playing well and it should be a fantastic match. If we can get over that hurdle we'll have a chance. We're catching Chelsea, we have to hope the finishing line does not come too soon.''
After Wayne Rooney had twice had chances elude him and Ryan Giggs had a rare right- foot drive saved by the excellent Jussi Jaaskelainen after 16 minutes, Bolton roughly grabbed hold of the game by taking the lead with a goal that was splendidly taken even if it was ushered on its way by defensive lapses. Nemanja Vidic was beaten to a header and Rio Ferdinand made a powder-puff attempt to tackle, but Kevin Nolan's pass was clever and Davies's finish the epitome of cool as he side-footed past Edwin van der Sar.
Yet, if that was a fine example of the striker's art, it was eclipsed seven minutes later. Mikaël Silvestre passed inside two defenders and Saha, coming in from the left wing, bent a delightful shot with the outside of his left foot that curled just inside the far post. Power, precision, and sheer audacity; Jaaskelainen did not have a hope of making a save.
That goal more than justified Ferguson's selection policy that has pushed Van Nistelrooy to the periphery in recent weeks, but it was to the Dutchman he turned just after the hour when a second goal did not come.
Rather than United taking the immediate offensive, it was Bolton, and Jay-Jay Okocha thumped a shot that almost eluded Van der Sar's leap and Gary Speed dragged another long- range effort just wide.
But United got stronger. Rooney rifled a low strike that had Jaaskelainen diving to his near post, Cristiano Ronaldo grazed the bar and Jaaskelainen dived at Saha's feet after a glorious move that included an exquisite back-heel from Van Nistelrooy. United were pounding at the gate, and in the 79th minute made the decisive breach.
John O'Shea played a pass worthy of Pat Crerand, Saha judged his run to perfection to stay on side and pulled the ball back for Van Nistelrooy to score his 150th goal for United by side footing into an empty net. "If your form is good enough going into April, you have a chance," Ferguson said. United's is, and they have. Albeit a slight one.
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